Obfuscation is one of those interesting words that sounds like it means – to make obscure.

Obfuscation is often associated with excessive wordiness and the use of technical jargon that is meaningful to “insiders” but not to others.

Obfuscation is almost synonymous with politics. It has become so commonplace that it is often hard to determine the actual truth. It is one of the reasons Politifact’s Truth-o-meter is popular. PolitiFact is best known for its fact checking of the claims made by candidates in the lead up to an election.

Obfuscation is also common in other professions.

Doctors and other medical practitioners are often accused of using medical jargon to conceal unpleasant facts from their patients. Euphemisms are often preferred over difficult discussions. Obfuscation is also used, in the form of medical coding, to make medical bills almost impossible to decipher and understand.

Many of the agreements consumers commonly encounter, including insurance policies, loan documents and home service contracts, are masterpieces of obfuscation and often filled with traps for the unwary. A key consumer skill has become deciphering documents that are intended to be ambiguous and confusing.

Occupational health and safety professionals are not immune to obfuscation.

The situations where obfuscation most commonly arises are in reporting the results of hazard assessments and incident investigations. This is particularly the case when the results of an assessment or investigation may be controversial or unacceptable to others within the organization. The individuals reporting the results don’t want to lie but are concerned about being too clear about what they perceive the “truth” to be – particularly when uncertainty is involved. They are concerned that being too truthful could result in being unemployed.

How can obfuscation be avoided?

First, learn the art of clear and concise writing.

This means avoiding the use of lengthy convoluted sentences. It also means writing so others can clearly understand what is being said. Littering a document with technical jargon and acronyms detracts from its readability.

Developing the practice of having your documents reviewed by non-professionals can improve clarity and help to avoid obfuscation. 

Second, don’t overstate your case.

There is a common tendency among professionals to use a few “facts” to draw universal conclusions and make sweeping generalizations.

Reality is seldom so black and white.

Often there is no single truth but only possibilities. What needs to be communicated to others is not certainty but probability. Even in situations where there is 99% certainty, there is also 1% uncertainty.

OHS professionals need to improve their skills in understanding how to assess and communicate to others in situations that involve risk, uncertainty and probability.

Finally, seek an independent review.

When you are too close to a situation, it is difficult to be objective. This is the reason that independence is the key requirement for internal audits. Individuals who are independent have less need for obfuscation.

Related Resources:

For an interesting list of the euphemisms that people use for death, click here.